Counting the Wrong Winners and Losers

Debates about trade liberalization often focus on identifying the winners and losers of increased openness to foreign competition.  Protectionists regale us with sad stories of closed factories, and free traders point to lower prices for consumers and the broad benefits of economic growth.  But this whole exercise is completely backwards.  We should instead be talking about the winners and losers of protectionism.

Free trade is not a trade policy.  Trade policies—such as tariffs, quotas, restrictions on foreign service providers, and protectionist regulations—exist to divert the benefits of free exchange toward politically powerful special interests.  Free trade is merely the absence of those policies. 

By demanding an explanation for increased openness, the trade debate implicitly legitimizes the protectionist status quo.  As a consequence, the news media often accept the argument that opening the U.S. market to foreign competition should be accompanied by programs that alleviate the suffering of the losers of increased trade.  But why is anyone entitled to the current arrangement?  Perhaps the winners of protectionism owe reparations to those of us who had to suffer the consequences of their rent-seeking. 

Who wins and who loses from policies that increase the price of food?  Who wins and who loses from regressive taxes on shoes and clothes?  Who wins and who loses from shipping restrictions?  Who wins and who loses from protectionist overregulation?  I could go on.

Last Sunday’s New York Times included an editorial calling on the Obama administration to “Get Global Trade Right” by adding a handful of protectionists’ pet issues to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Threatening our trade partners with sanctions if they don’t adopt specific labor, environment, or monetary policies is not going help the United States get trade right, but it will make us a bully and reduce our ability to make real progress tearing down genuine barriers. 

After (wrongly) blaming increased economic openness for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs and growing income inequality, the Times—without a hint of irony—says that President Obama needs “to make a strong case for why these new agreements will be good for the American economy and workers.”  Well, that is certainly true.

Let me offer some humble advice to the president then on how he might take on that task: Stop selling trade agreements as a way to grow export markets for goods produced in the United States, and start extolling the virtues of agreements as a way to fight cronyism and to tear down bad policies. Thinking about trade agreements this way will not only help you sell the agreement, it could actually make the agreements better.